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Law and Social Movements

Yesterday (27 April) I gave one of two keynote speeches at a UEA Politics symposium on Media, Activism and Politics. The full list of speakers is here Media Politics and Activism FINAL poster   I hope to blog a few lines on this in the next few days but for now, for anyone interested, the slides are here –


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Four legs good – two legs just as good, no better, no worse

Far too much ink has been spilled in the last few days, considering – dissecting? – Chris Grayling’s plans for reform of the UK’s human rights law. Blogs by Mark Elliott, Carl Gardner, Adam Wagner Angela Patrick (of JUSTICE) and Alison Young would be but five looking at the legal illiteracy, simple fallacies and distortion. The most recent tweets and posts have been on Conservative HQ seeming dissembling over where on-line the proposals could be found.

For example, it is simply not the case (p.4 of the policy proposals) that the Misuse of Drugs Act (and here I assume they mean the 1971 Act) “provides the defence for the defendant to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that they did not know, suspect or have reason to suspect that what they had was an illegal drug.” Section 5(4) and indeed s.28(3) are absolutely silent on the standard – and indeed the burden – of proof; that is the point. To have read such words as occurred in Lambert (again, assuming the case they are referring to) would have been a gross distortion and almost certainly an excess of the interpretative power in s.3 of the HRA –and thus an arguably illegitimate power grab. Instead, the House of Lords was able to overturn many other common law cases interpreting the word “prove” in a way that was more favourable to defendants, and in keeping with Article 6.

That though is not my main concern in this blog. Instead, I plan to look at the claim – in the accompanying press release, not the actual 8-page document – that

No one would be able to claim human rights to allow them to step outside the law that applies to all other citizens, for example a group of travellers claiming the right to family life to breach planning laws.

 First, at a normative level, this obscures the fact that human rights are – or perhaps should be – avowedly anti-majoritarian, something I mentioned in a couple of posts last week. It is the task of human rights defenders to counter objections to the universality of rights – that somehow there are those deserving of protection and others who are not (which of course chimes with the theme of responsibilities in the proposals). If that view holds sway, you can bet that the targets of abuses – devoid then of protection – will be the usual suspects. Human rights protection is for all, yes, but especially for those on the margins. In short, human rights laws, it can be argued, are there and are needed precisely to exempt some people –some groups perhaps – from the bite of laws approved by the majority.

Secondly, it will simply unravel if the Tories seek to provide some flesh. Yes, travellers are an easy target – of course, it would be argued, ordinary planning laws should bind them as much as it binds “hard working families” but would we – rather would they – be so sanguine, so keen to tell Beth Warren that she should not be exempt from the normal time limits for using her late husband’s sperm? The HFEA’s decision to stick to the statutory limit was ruled an unlawful – i.e. disproportionate – breach of Mrs Warren’s right to family life under Article 8. Section 3 of the HRA was used to read the legislation (s.14 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Act 1990) in a way to assist, the wording of which we might reasonably conclude Parliament had already sought to balance the relevant competing tensions, interests and concerns. Of course, it helps that Mrs Warren is in Chomskyan terms, a worthy victim. What about mothers and fathers – now safe in the knowledge that the state must bear the costs of some aspects of private family law cases as a result of Article 6 and 8? That is the result of the decision taken by Munby P in Q v Q this summer but is this not, under the guise of human rights law, a different, and enhanced, outcome than the ordinary law that applies to all would seem to predict, exactly what the Tory proposals are so damning about? Last, what would the Tories say to Gary McKinnon – stepping outside the ordinary law of extradition that applies too all, unless – like him – you happen to be such a great suicide risk that to send you to face trial in the USA would likely amount to a breach of your human rights.

So the Tory policy is not only intellectually suspect but hypocritical, a divide and rule policy for temporary political advantage, and (certain) red top approval. After all, the Home Secretary’s decision in respect of McKinnon was warmly lauded by the Daily Mail seemingly without any volte face or even recognition that this was a departure from their usual line on criminal deportations. On the topic of barefaced chutzpah, let us leave it to The Sun, which this week lay claim to greater journalistic protection – having previously campaigned long and hard to deny human rights to others. What better example of someone seeking to step outside the law. Someone needs to let Chris Grayling know sharpish. Gotcha indeed!

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